Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore)


Thanjavur, in ancient days called “The rice bowl of Tamil Nadu,” was an important city to the ancient Cholas. It was remade by the Cholas from a collection of villages into a major temple center 1000 years ago, with the construction of the Brihadisvara Temple in the center of the city, and the city then built up around it. Thanjavur had the distinction of being specifically constructed as a religious city with the temple centermost.

The Cholas came into power in the 800 – 900 CE period, and were, for a few hundred years, a major world and naval power, who spread through South India, Sri Lanka, and around the Indian Ocean. This movement of the Tamil people and culture to other areas in Southeast Asia was a lasting one, and still exists today.

The Brihadisvara Temple was completed in 1010 CE, and just had an extensive 1000-year anniversary celebration. It is recognized as a World Heritage Site. As ruling powers changed in South India, the temple was controlled by different ruling groups: first the Cholas, then, in succession, Pandya, Vijayanagara, Nayaka, and Maratha rulers. Each has inscriptions in the temple. Other temple features were added by different rulers since the initial construction in 1010 CE, so the temple as it is seen today is the product of work done over hundreds of years.

We visited this temple during our trip through southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala, described in this post.

We enter through the Maratha Entrance. It is late in the day, and the temple entrance faces East, and so is in shadow.


Looking through the entrance gate at the series of other gates.


Inside is a map of the temple grounds.


Also a plaque that gives the history of the Temple, and Thanjavur and the Cholas.

Looking up at the gate. It is hard to get the giant scale of these gates in a photo.


Looking back at the second gate, the Keralantaken Tiruvasal.


Entering the third gate, the Rajarajan Tiruvasal.


Looking up (and back) at the Rajarajan Tiruvasal.


I love the view from one gate through another.



Looking back at Keralantaken Tiruvasal through the Rajarajan Tiruvasal gate.


The evening light makes these gates stand out so clearly. The stone has more of a reddish tint than I see in most other temples in Tamil Nadu.

The east wall next to the gates.


It is topped by many stone Nandis, facing outward. This is a common form in south Indian Siva temples.


The South wall and walkway.


People use this space for quiet contemplation.


Here is the Varahi shrine next to this old tree.


Many people visit this temple every day, including groups of school children. Here is a group of young girls.


They are near to the magnificent Nandi that stands before the main temple in the Nandi Mandapam.


Here the boys pose for a photo.


Between the Nandi Mandapam and the main temple is the flag pole. It is brass, with a series of figures at its base. At the very base are four ‘ego’ figures, straining because they think they do all the work of holding the flag pole, ignoring the heavy brass spine behind them.


Here is the flag pole with the Nandi Mandapam behind it.


On the ceiling of the Mandapam is a series of colorful paintings, intended, I think, to bring the mind of the viewer towards the Infinite.


Here is the entrance to the main temple, Bridhasvara Temple. We continue on our pradakshina around the temple, rather than enter it. It faces east, and so is in shade right now.


Looking back and the Nandi Mandapam and the three gates.


On the side of the main temple are inscribed long sections of Tamil script. I  understand that inscriptions have been carved by all the different groups that ruled over the temple.


If one could read them, one would then learn a version of the history of the temple and its rulers.

Looking up at the tower that tops the Brihadisvara Temple. Some kind of reconstruction work is being done at the very top. You can see the scaffolding that surrounds it.


In the wall of the temple tower, and the hall that fronts it, are many carved figures. Most seem martial, warriors of some kind.


These are, I think, older carvings, and mirror some of the figures found in one of the gates. This is an entrance into a side chamber of the main temple.


Figure with a club.

Guardian figures at a doorway.


The temple tower. It seems to rise to the heavens themselves, especially from this closeup view.


Another warrior figure.

And another. These figures, and the temple construction itself, were done by various groups that conquered the area. Maybe these warrior figures commemorate the conquerors?

Near the rear of the main temple, stairs rise up to another chamber. The stone of this chamber is clearly a  different color, so this was built later as an add-on, I think. There was a priest inside this room, so people climbed up to receive a blessing.


At the doorway.


The main temple tower again, from a different view point.


The entrance to the Ganesha Shrine.


Another perspective in the main tower. I love how it towers over us.


The back of the Ganesha Shrine.


Looking back at the temple courtyard you can see how big a space it is.


Looking across the grounds at the west end of the temple.


The Chandikesvara Shrine, north of the main temple.


Below, a group a lingams, set out like the Nine Planets.


A small Ganesh shrine in the North Cloister Mandapam.


A very old lingam. Its base is square, not like the circular ones seen for most of the last 1000 years.


On the walls of the North Cloister Mandapam are a series of paintings, illustrating scenes from Hindu lore.


This is Durga.


Nandi looks into the lingam.


I see the peacock, so this must be Murugan (also knows as Skanda, or Subramania).


A figure in a niche in the wall. It is coated with a reddish substance. I do not know what this is.


A nicely decorated lingam, in front of a painting of a lingam with eyes and a face.


The Annam Shrine.


Looking south from the North Cloister Mandapam.


Another painting. A woman suckles a baby.


A different view of the Annam Shrine, with the tower of the main temple behind.


Another painting. As we get to the east end of the Mandapam, the paintings get fainter and fainter, perhaps bleached by the sunlight.


A black stone guardian figure.


Looking down the North Cloister Mandapam.


A row of lingams, with paintings on the wall.


Paintings getting faded out. Below is a lingam with a square base and no spout for water flow. Very unusual.



The Amman Shrine, again.


The main temple, from the North Cloister Mandapam.


The Nandi Mandapam.


Carol walking ahead of me in the North Cloister Mandapam.


The Rajarajan Tiruvasal, from the North Cloister Mandapam.


At the end of the North Cloister Mandapam is a shrine in a chamber that faces west. Outside this chamber, we saw this baby, all wrapped up like it is deep winter. It is probably 80 – 85 F.


Inside the chamber are the baby’s mother and father, offering puja to the God inside.


Another lingam, near the eastern gates. It is closer to the entrance, and easy to get to. The walls are defaced by graffiti. To me, this is disgusting, how people will deface a holy site.


The decoration at the top of the Rajarajan Tiruvasal.


On the east wall, we see a set of bright orange murtis, covered with turmeric and in the late day’s sunlight.


Richard, taking a photo.


Looking closely, we see these are Naginis, Snake Goddesses. The one with the yellow dress must be the head Goddess.


The sun is setting over the main temple tower as we leave.


A figure on one of the gates. The years have worn away much of it.


On the way out, we see the temple elephant blessing people who give it a coin by tapping them on their head.


The Keralantaken Tiruvasal, as we approach it to leave. So many people visited the temple today.


These school kids look happy, as does the young girl being helped up by one of them.


We never made it back to try to go into the main temple. We had heard that this is a place that excludes Non-Hindus, and did not feel like testing what we  had heard. Even without visiting the main temple, this is a place very worth the visit: ancient, beautiful gates and buildings and towers covered with classic carved figures from 1000 years ago. This is a special place, well worth the recognition as a World Heritage Site.

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4 Responses to “Brihadisvara Temple in Thanjavur (Tanjore)”

  1. Kavitha K Says:

    Hi Richard, Juz reading all your blog archives now.
    They are really good and gives us, the locals, a look back in these busy days.
    its mostly in kerala, non-hindus are not allowed and in TamilNadu almost in all temples all people are allowed even you doesn’t believe in god so y not u and carol? and u should have seen that huge huge breath-taking lingam inside the main temple.

  2. ramanajyothi Says:

    “We never made it back to try to go into the main temple. We had heard that this is a place that excludes Non-Hindus, and did not feel like testing what we had heard.”

    Oh no! I feel bad about that. You are as Hindu (and more) as can be. I think they allow non-hindus if they sign some papers. I vaguely remember that they do that in Tirupati. The denial of entry to non-hindus is probably an attempt to keep the ones witout an understanding of or respect for Hindu gods and holy places of worship. You might have noticed that Hinduism is a pretty complex religion.
    A recommendation letter from Ramanashramam might help too, along with signing of the declaration papers, if they have any. You may want to try that next time.

    • richardclarke Says:

      Thanks for the comment. We had thought that maybe we could get a letter from Ramanasramam to help in this matter. And I guess we have to allow more time for the temple visits to sign whatever papers that are needed. At one temple in Trivandram the office was several km away from the temple, more barriers for those who want to try to enter. Also we do feel more Hindu than most westerners. WE have followed Hindu teachings and actually engaged in spiritual practices that are certainly Hindu for about 20 years.

  3. anabhakta Says:

    Very beautiful post, Richard!

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